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Road trip

Great West Coast road trip, route 6

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A roll call for West Coast towns, mountains, ocean and rivers

Route 66, USA eat your heart out, here’s a route with attitude. State Highway 6, rugged, hidden corners and a journey through the soul of scenic Aotearoa New Zealand.

Country blues, folk music, empty roads and drop dead gorgeous scenery. This is not a detour or byway, rather a major aerial route into the beautiful remote West Coast of the South Island.

Beautiful views of Lake Wakatipu and Queenstown, New Zealand
Beautiful views of Lake Wakatipu and Queenstown

The Great West Coast Road runs between Murchison, Westport and Greymouth has been named one of the Top 10 Coastal Drives in the world according to Lonely Planet. The road hugs river gorges and skirts the coast and the hills as it wends its way south. It is a continuous route from the northeast top of the South Island, crossing the Alps then down to the bottom of the South Island, Queenstown and beyond to finish at Invercargill.

Internationally renown destinations are on the route

  • Buller Gorge scenic drive
  • Punakaiki Pancake Rocks
  • Gold mining heritage sites & trails
  • Glacier Country, rivers of ice & mirror lakes
  • Fiordland
  • Wanaka & Queenstown

ROUTE OVERVIEW

The route starts at the top of South Island in Nelson where you join State Highway 6 at the beginning of its long journey down the South Island. The journey finishes in Queenstown. And And keep on going on SH6… travel on the Southern Scenic Road Trip to Invercargill

The trip has four sections. Each section is independent of each other. The entire route is known as the Great West Coast Road (West Coast, South Island). At each section if you feel like a detour, go for it. There are plenty of tips to encourage you to explore hidden corners.

Great West Coast Road Trip Sections

For details about the kiwi towns the route passes or major settlements check the guides for

It is a phenomenal route as the scenery is constantly changing. The drive that is New Zealand tourism at its best.

ROUTE

Nelson, Murchison, Westport, Greymouth, Hokitika, Haast Pass, Wanaka, Queenstown

The route then continues as the SOUTHERN SCENIC ROUTE to Fiordland.

TIP

You can traverse the island looping back to Nelson via Invercargill, The Catlins, Dunedin. This route is largely on state highway 1. More on this later.

HIGHLIGHTS

  • Ghost towns, abandoned places where making a dollar depended on the whims of your gold mining enterprise
  • Witness the story of coal as the fuel resource for the planet and the West Coast’s story boom, bust and tragedy
  • Wild ocean, driftwood beaches and soaring pristine forest clad hills frame the road journey.
  • Rivers carve gorges with white water bouncing light against cliff face roads clinging to engineered marvels
  • Side roads to towns where the names are also forgotten
  • Abandoned cemeteries and tragic stories aplenty
  • Glaciers and mountain passes where tussock and peaks dominate the landscape
  • Southern lakes where Queenstown, Wanaka and Arrowtown offer visitors a polished hospitality experience
Franz Josef Glacier, New Zealand @TripSavvy
Franz Josef Glacier @TripSavvy
Tunnel Terrace foliage entrance in the rain, West Coast, South Island, New Zealand

WEATHER

The West Coast rain is a companion. Think of the mist rolling down the hills and onto the sea as a coat creating atmospheric conditions rather than a nuisance.  And the pesky sandfly needs industrial strength repellant. These annoying factors make the journey an adventure where you are tested by nature. Scenery, the views, the surprising vineyard and historic stories of 19th century gold mining, coal mining and endurance will always win out.

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

Where to start: Murchison?

Why, because nobody should miss the sheer exhilaration of the Buller Gorge.

I live in Christchurch / have just landed at the airport in Christchurch. Can I join the road trip from Christchurch?

For Christchurch fans the route could alternatively start in Christchurch to Hanmer Springs and the Lewis Pass into the West Coast. This option offers the excitement of discovering Reefton, town of light. Check our Reefton Guide.

Here is a map outline of the route

Christchurch, Lewis Pass, Reefton, Greymouth

If I use the Lewis Pass and arrive in Greymouth will I miss Punakaiki Pancake Rocks?

Yes if you continue south. At Reefton travel to Inangahua on State Highway 69, rejoining the Great Coast Road (State Highway 6) at Inangahua then you will be on route to arrive in Wesport.

This is a great solution as the Reefton to Inangahua is 35 km away. Spectacular scenery on this seldom used route. State Highway 69 connects the towns of Reefton (on SH 7) with the town of Inangahua Junction (on SH 6) via Cronadun. The highway is part of the main link between the centres of Christchurch and Westport.

Approximately 45 minutes to 1 hour.

TIP

The Buller Gorge section is unmissable and this kink in the journey means you do not miss out.

NOTE

The above alternate route does not include Nelson to Murchison. Perhaps save that for another day.

Murchison can I detour to Reefton?

At Murchison can I take a detour to Reefton and drive the Lewis Pass to Hanmer?

Effectively you are not driving on the Great West Coast Road. And yes, definitely you can drive from Nelson to Murchison and leave the West Coast road for later. Check Top of the South Island loop route for inspiration. It’s your road trip, go where the heart takes you.

Westport, can I take a day trip to Denniston or Karamea?

Perhaps you want to take a day trip to Karamea as the incredible granite and limestone formations of the Oparara Basin are on your bucket list. You’ve been inspired after checking out Westport to Karamea road trip, travel guide, things to do: NZ Jane. Definitely the road trip is designed for you to pace the journey. Take as much time as you want.

Flagstaff beach, Karamea Estuary, New Zealand @Shellie Evans
Flagstaff beach, Karamea Estuary @Shellie Evans
Hokitika's clock tower, West Coast, New Zealand
Hokitika's clock tower

How far is Lake Brunner from Greymouth?

It’s a short day trip, in fact check here for details, Greymouth inland route Lake Brunner

Hokitika, can I stop for a few days?

Definitely worth spending time in Hokitika. Check out our Hokitika Guide for what to do and where to go.

Haast Pass, can I travel in winter?

Yes, you can however listen to weather forecasts before departing and, if necessary carry snow chains for the car tyres.

BEST BITS TRAVEL GUIDE – UNIQUE JOURNEYS, PERSONAL ADVENTURES.

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